Thai opposition holds mass rally in Bangkok

The BBC's Jonathan Head reports from the noisy streets of Bangkok

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Tens of thousands of opposition-backed protesters have marched through the Thai capital in their continuing campaign to bring down the government.

Rallies were held outside the Bangkok home of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, as well as the city's main shopping areas and intersections.

On Saturday the main opposition Democrat Party said it would boycott elections called for 2 February.

Ms Yingluck called the polls earlier this month to try to end the protests.

She won the last election in 2011, but protesters say her brother - the controversial ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra - remains in charge.

The protesters massed at five main intersections, disrupting traffic in the commercial heart of the capital.

"People want reform before an election," protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said at a rally at a Bangkok shopping mall.

"Today we closed Bangkok for half a day. If the government doesn't resign we will close Bangkok for a whole day... If it still does not resign we will close it for a month," he is quoted as saying by the French news agency AFP.

The opposition-backed protests in Bangkok have caused Thailand's most serious political turmoil since 2010, with four people killed in clashes in recent weeks.

'People's assembly' call

At a news conference on Saturday, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters his party had agreed it would not field candidates in the snap elections.

"The Thai people have lost their faith in the democratic system," he said, adding that "Thai politics is at a failed stage".

The prime minister dissolved parliament and called the election on 9 December in a bid, she said, to avoid violence on the streets and "to give back the power to the Thai people".

Anti-government attack a bus near Rajamala Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Bangkok The protests have led to Thailand's most serious political violence since 2010

Her Pheu Thai party has a majority in parliament, and draws significant support from Thailand's rural areas. It is seen as well-placed to win February's election.

The head of the Thai army has warned the country's political divisions could "trigger a civil war".

General Prayuth Chan-ocha said he was deeply concerned by the latest crisis, with divisions not just in Bangkok but across the whole country.

He has proposed a "people's assembly" - made up of civilians, not leaders, to heal the divisions.

Setting out his vision, he said it should be made up of people from both sides of the political divide - known as the "red shirts", those who support Thaksin Shinawatra, and the "yellow shirts", those who oppose him.

Thailand's troubles

  • Sept 2006: Army overthrows government of Thaksin Shinawatra, rewrites constitution
  • Dec 2007: Pro-Thaksin People Power Party wins most votes in election
  • Aug 2008: Mr Thaksin flees into self-imposed exile before end of corruption trial
  • Dec 2008: Mass yellow-shirt protests paralyse Bangkok; Constitutional Court bans People Power Party; Abhisit Vejjajiva comes to power
  • Mar-May 2010: Thousands of pro-Thaksin red shirts occupy parts of Bangkok; eventually cleared by army; dozens killed
  • July 2011: Yingluck Shinawatra leads Pheu Thai party to general election win
  • Nov 2013: Anti-government protesters begin street demonstrations
  • Dec 2013: Opposition MPs resign; Ms Yingluck calls elections

He stressed his grouping would be different to the "people's council" proposed by the opposition.

"The people's assembly must not be organised or sponsored by any conflicting group, as it would not be accepted by the other side," he said.

Protests began nearly a month ago after Thailand's lower house passed a controversial amnesty bill, which critics said could allow Thaksin Shinawatra to return without serving time in jail.

Mr Thaksin is currently in self-imposed exile after he was overthrown in a military army coup in 2006 and convicted of corruption.

The protesters say the former prime minister remains the power behind the ruling Pheu Thai party, and accuse it of using public funds irresponsibly to secure votes.

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